Saturday, March 12, 2016


BLACK AS HE'S PAINTED by Ngaio Marsh (1974)

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

Superintendent Alleyn's old school chum-- whom his wife Troy longs to paint-- is now President of Ng'ombwana, a brand-new African republic. This handsome, charismatic dictator has enemies of every stripe: from ruddy-faced ex-colonists to new rivals, from dispossessed businessmen to racist crackpots. But when a ceremonial spear deals death at his lavish embassy party in London, Alleyn must decipher the victim's last utterance and expose an assassin's true colors...

This novel, a find from my Paris trip, is an ambiguous text in several respects. On the one hand it clings to features of British Golden Age detective fiction such as including a map and cast of characters. But on the other hand, Marsh in this novel attempts to tackle contemporary issues, specifically race relations and race crimes, and her success in doing so is also mixed. This theme is foreshadowed in the title, as the erroneous idea that black is symbolic of badness and therefore all things and people who are, are the same, is a viewpoint which some of the characters labour under. However, the ‘he’ of this title, is open to interpretation as there are many characters, who are not necessarily black, who could fit this criteria. Racial prejudice and discrimination was arguably a hot topic in 1974, the year this book was published, with anti-Apartheid actions being encouraged and enacted. Japan refused to grant visas to South Africans and New Zealand (Marsh’s home country), imposed a ban on sports teams from South Africa.

BLACK AS HE'S PAINTED opens on a less controversial and conventional note of Mr Whipplestone, feeling bored in new retirement, going for walk in London and encountering a cat who immediately takes a shine to him. On meeting an acquaintance, the Ambassador of Ng’ombwana, a fictional emergent African republic, we discover that the President of this republic is planning to visit England and our Mr Whipplestone is invited to the reception. Mr Whipplestone ends up buying a house, but part of the deal is that the current owner, Mr Sheridan, gets to rent the basement at an agreed price. In a letter to his sister, Mr Whipplestone describes his new abode as
‘nothing in the way of excitements or “happenings” or violence or beastly demonstrations. It suits me. At my age one prefers the uneventful life and that… is what I expect to enjoy at No. 1, Capricorn Walk.’

However as the narrator points out, ‘Prophecy was not Mr Whipplestone’s strong point.’

Inspector Alleyn enters the story at this point, with the task of convincing the Ng’Ombwanan President to accept Special Branch measures for his visit. He is chosen for the job as he is an old school friend of the President. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of people who would be keen to assassinate the President, right and left extremists and British colonials who lost their positions in Ng’Ombwana, among others. The night of the reception dawns and it seems several of Mr Whipplestone’s neighbours have been invited or are working there. But despite the precautions of Special Branch, a death does occur during the garden entertainments, just not the president’s. There are a lot of red herrings thrown Inspector Alleyn’s way including two murder weapons, two assaults and ambiguity over who the intended victim was. What makes the investigation even more difficult is that the President limits what Inspector Alleyn can do, especially in regards to the President’s own staff. Suspicion falls quickly on Mr Whipplestone’s neighbours and servants, who as the novel progresses, all seem to have apparent motives and also appear to be a part of a race hate group, symbolised by a fish medallion. The pressure is mounted as it is feared another attempt may be made to assassinate the President. But will Inspector Alleyn solve the case before death strikes again?

As mentioned before race relations and race crimes are two pertinent themes in the novel. Not renowned for her tackling of social themes, I think to begin with Marsh struggles to comfortably articulate these issues, slipping into phrases and terms which, certainly today, would not be considered appropriate, especially perhaps in the tone they convey. For example Inspector Alleyn thinks to himself that ‘for the first time, seeing the slackened jaw and now the hooded lacklustre eyes he thought, specifically: “I am speaking to a Negro”’. Moreover, Inspector Alleyn also says to Mr Whipplestone ‘could you bear to write out an account of that black – in both senses – charade in there…’ Although demarcating language as used in the first example is also used in regards to Caucasian people, ‘the whites’. Equally other mirroring acts include when Mrs Montfort says she knew the man who pushed her over was a black man (despite there being no lights on and the man having a stocking over his head), because of the way he smelt. Inspector Alleyn replies by suggesting that black people feel the same about white people: ‘An African friend of mine told me that it took him almost a year before he left off feeling faint in lifts during the London rush hours.’ Personally, I am still in two minds as to what results this technique of Marsh’s has.

Another concept Marsh incorporates in her depiction of race relations is the idea that it is not just white people trying to separate themselves from black people, but the reverse also occurs. This is shown through the character of the President who when Inspector Alleyn tries to talk about the assassination threat, he replies:
‘but this thing we discuss now belongs to my colour and my race. My blackness. Please, do not try to understand: try only, my dear Rory to accept.’
In this example, it seems as though the President is trying to distance himself from Inspector Alleyn through his repeated use of possessive personal pronouns and by discouraging him from trying to comprehend the issues at hand. Moreover, when murder occurs at the President’s reception, he instantly wants the police to deal with the mostly white British guests, while he deals with his Ng’Ombwanan staff, which Inspector Alleyn perceives as an ‘inverted form of Apartheid,’ a very current reference at the time. Another cultural reference is to the Ku-Klux Klan as Inspector Alleyn names the race hate group as the ‘Ku-Klux Fish’. Looking at this phrase I am undecided as to whether it is showing race hate groups as negative and horrible, as well as ridiculous or whether it is belittling the damage such groups can do and is too light hearted. Arguably it could be doing both simultaneously.

Justice in this novel is not entirely satisfactory, with certain elements getting their just desserts, while others do not. Politics and justice in this novel, as in life, do not always mix or coincide well together.

On the whole I thought this was a surprising book by Marsh, as I have not considered her as writer who hugely addresses contemporary issues. But I think she made a good attempt, for the times, even if at points her footing was not so sure. The character of the President is particularly interesting. In the novel he is likened to Othello, a tragic hero, which I think is an idea that is crystallised at the denouement of the book, where the President discusses his own actions and likens himself and his country to ‘an unfinished portrait’.

Kate Jackson is a English teacher and tutor from northern England. This is a lightly edited version of a review first published on Kate's excellent blog Cross Examining Crime. You can follow Kate on Twitter: @ArmchairSleuth

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